How Guy Gavriel Kay’s Books Started My Love for Writing Historical Fantasy

As before, one of the most important things I can say about my reading history is that, until circa 2006, I read exclusively in Croatian (and a little in Serbian, due to my family’s obsession with Ursula Leguin, whose works hadn’t been translated all that much into Croatian back in the day).

Thus, all I was, actually, able to read was what got translated into Croatian, which is a scary thing, looking back, since we’re a tiny market. (4.2-ish million people altogether.) Luckily—and I do mean it, I’m quite aware how lucky we were—there were at least two editors with their publishing houses who had (what would later become) a reading taste quite similar to mine. (One might argue that they helped create my reading preferences, which is a completely different scary story for another day.)

In retrospect, I have a hunch one of them was a fan of Guy Gavriel Kay’s. (He was also a fan of Tolkien, which probably helped.) Of course, these days, as one half of a publishing cottage, I believe it was probably a combination of publishing options and decisions, but I’ll leave it at that. Either way, he started getting Kay’s works translated and published in hardcover as early as mid-nineties, and proceeded to get everything published up until Under Heaven, although I gave up on Kay after Last Light of the Sun because both my reading preferences and, I feel, his content had changed by that time.

And yet, we’ve had a pretty good decade together, Kay’s books and I, and ever since I’ve realized I’m the happiest when writing historical fantasy, I keep going back to the books which, basically, screwed me up for life, which were, in no special order, Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana and Sailing to Sarantium. Of course, a bit later, I went on to major in Art History, which didn’t help, but it’s and chicken and/or egg situation—did I fall in love with Art History because of Kay’s books, or did my already nascent love for all things art help me fall in love with his books? I’m pretty content either way.

The first non-short-story thing I ever wrote was, in retrospect, way more of a Kay fanfiction than I gave it credit, back then, in the mid-naughts. It even had a port city built of domes, for fuck’s sake. (I burned it to the ground, bwahahahah.) Nope, I’m not going back to fix it and try to publish it—I still love the characters, but they were problematic in a distinctly non sexy way, and the setting is historical fantasy inspired by an era I’m not really interested in—that is, anything before the 1700s.

The first book I did get published—the book whose sequel is on my monthly schedule to try to edit to the end, right now—didn’t derive all that much from Kay’s narratives, although it is a sort of historical fantasy (werewolf romance set in 1873), but my current series… oh, boy.

The problem with Kay’s fiction is multifold—European settings (which is where I’m from and where I live!), ultra-mega-awesome (bisexual) main characters, the drama, the cultural clashes, the art. Oh, the art. The way Kay wrote it, my own semi-local history seemed so awesome, so interesting, so beyond sexy, that his books always trumped actual history, the likes of which I used to be taught in elementary and high school. It was because of his books that I (dammit, I almost say googled, but it wasn’t exactly applicable) researched stuff and tried to figure out the different societies which clashed and lived together—or next to each other—in southeastern Europe throughout history. It was because of him—and my two favourite professors in college—that I started looking at architecture with different eyes, and interior design in general, and I still know a little bit about mosaics because of the way he wrote about them, not because what I learned while, you know, studying actual Art History. (I focused on post 1700s, of course, not of the ages he wrote about, but still!) At a certain point, I actually got to go to Ravenna and see the mosaics he threaded through his Sarantium books as inspiration, in person.

Well, very long story short, I think I write the way I write—do with history what I’m doing with history—because I read enough of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books early enough in my life. (The rest of it—the interpersonal drama and the series aspect—is due to Lois McMaster Bujold, which I’ll be revisiting later in the year.) I believe—and this is even scarier, but no less true—that, in part, I think the way I think because of his books, and other people’s. That’s why it’s so scary when people read a lot. They get exposed to a whole lotta ideas, often different from the ideas they were brought up with.

So; if you’ve never read any of Guy Gavriel Kay—like a writer colleague of mine who has only recently started, and loved it—and you like history, wars, cultural clashes, non-celtic fantasy and characters who do the heavy lifting for the whole narrative—do yourself a favour and check his books out. I’m not going to presume I’m the right person to know which book would be the best fit for you (and it’s not the Vorkosigan saga, where I’m of the start with the Warrior’s Apprentice! belief), but he’s got a few awesome standalones. My favourite has always been Lions of Al-Rassan—early middle ages, Catholic vs Muslim Spain (but written though a lens of alt!historical worldbuilding), female physician MC and, uh, a great ship (but you must note that the book is pretty old, so… don’t get your hopes up, and do forgive this spoiler)—but Tigana is special, too, especially if you like your fantasy with a little more fantasy.

Happy sailing!

Alright, that’s it from me on the subject of the awesomeness of one of my favourite writers of all time—one of the people whose work encouraged me to write the way I do. See you next week with another post here on Skirs’n’Wolves, where we’re all about geeking out over writing and reading, all the time.

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Cover photo by Kayra Sercan on Unsplash.

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